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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on November 1, 2012

Airport avatars: Voice-recognition is 'next step' for virtual assistants

Virtual assistants are becoming increasingly common at airports as they look for new ways to raise customer satisfaction levels, writes Steven Thompson. 

Intelligent holograms and virtual assistants were once just a flight of fancy: a product of the overactive imagination of the science fiction world.

In the 2002 blockbuster, Minority Report, high-tech billboards scan Tom Cruise’s iris and tailored advertising to his specific needs. The scene was surely meant as a chilling glimpse of a futuristic Big Brother society, but there can be no doubt it gave advertisers and developers an idea or two.

Now, a decade-or-so later, reality is coming close to catching up with science fiction. The future is now and, as ever, the aviation industry is at the forefront.

Virtual assistants – or avatars – made by companies such as Tensator and airportONE, are becoming more and more commonplace in airports.

They work as a projected image, advising customers, on issues such as security, wayfinding, and managing queue-time expectations.

Holly, Libby and Graham – to name but a few of these 21st century stewards – are multi-lingual, easy on the eye, and some are even able to answer passenger questions.

In airports, they have been the natural choice to explain the often-complex rules surrounding liquids and gels to passengers.

“The journey for the traveller through the airport can be quite stressful,” explains Tensator’s virtual assistant product manager, Ajay Joshi.

“There are a lot of unknowns, from parking, to check-in, and security. These experiences do not prepare you for a comfortable, pleasant travel experience.

“The virtual assistants work better than static signage, because they are able to tell a story and explain processes in an emotional way.

“They engage with the customer, keeping them better informed and even entertained.”

There are other advantages too: for while the virtual assistants lack, perhaps, the human touch, they also do not possess any of the drawbacks of a living, breathing member of staff, as airportONE’s virtual assistant, AVA (which stands for advanced virtual assistant) explains.

“I’m a real crowd pleaser,” she says, in a promotional video.

“Everyone likes me and listens to me. I can give directions, keep your lines moving, and advertise your products.

“You name it, I can probably do it. Even better, I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I never take a break or sick leave, and I don’t charge overtime.”

Not that the virtual assistants are meant to replace employees, although there were some initial worries.

“That has been a concern,” explains Patrick Bienvenu, of airportONE. “However, staff have generally learned quickly that the avatar is meant to supplement their efforts and free them up
for more complicated tasks, or tasks that require human interaction.”

Passengers, though, are a fickle lot. Not everyone is going to be pleased when greeted by a static non-human customer services representative.  Or are they? Has there been any negative reaction?

“We thought that there would be a lot more,” adds Joshi. “But experience has told us they are met with open arms.

“Customers feel better prepared and they do like the virtual assistants. They haven’t been damaged or abused.”

Tensator’s virtual assistants are installed at Frankfurt, Dubai International, Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham, London Luton and Boston Logan airports, among others, while airportOne has them at New York’s Newark Liberty, JFK and LaGuardia airports.

Dubai International Airport (DXB) was the first airport in the Middle East to embrace virtual assistants, with Sujata Suri, vice president for service development, explaining that the 24/7 nature of the assistants was very important.

“As a customer-centric company, we realise that it is essential, amid all the ongoing growth and expansion, that we make the journey through our airport as quick and pleasant as possible,” she said in December 2011, when the airport unveiled its newest members of staff.

“Just like the airport, the virtual assistants work 24/7 and will play an important role in helping us to achieve that goal.”

Tensator is also now working with airlines, and outside of aviation, they are working in retail.

The virtual assistants will be using facial recognition to tell if a customer is male or female. They will then assess their skin tone and hair colour and be able to recommend appropriate cosmetics products.

The company is also working on creating a virtual wine expert. Customers will be able to scan a bottle and the expert will tell them more about the wine and suggest food that will go well with it.

Atomisers, which emit a scent, are also being used with the VAs, as an additional advertising platform.

Assistants come with an HD projector, Bose sound and their own content management system (CMS), enabling content to be changed remotely, via the Internet.

Each VA is custom made to a client’s demands, so if an airport needs an assistant to speak English, Spanish and French, for example, then Tensator will find a suitable person as the face – and voice – of that particular airport.

However, as Joshi explains, this is not always possible.

“If they want a virtual assistant to be able to speak an unusual combination of languages, such as Flemish, Urdu, English and Japanese, then it may not be possible to find someone,” he says.

“But we have dubbing techniques that means we are able to work around this.”

At Bristol Airport in the UK, there are three Tensator virtual assistants, two at security, advising passengers about liquids and gels, and one at international arrivals, encouraging passengers to use the ePassport gates.

The virtual assistants at Bristol do not respond to questions, and only speak in English, and Alison Roberts, head of customer operations at Bristol Airport, says they received a warm welcome from staff.

“The introduction of the virtual assistants has freed up members of the customer service team and security agents to perform other roles, giving them flexibility to move around the airport rather than being tied to a particular point in the terminal for long periods of time,” she says, adding that staff did not fear they were being replaced by robots.

“We use virtual assistants to convey security information in our central search area, but they are just one element of the communications mix.”

By the time passengers see the virtual assistants at Bristol, they will already have viewed a video explaining the security process.

“The role of the virtual assistants is to reinforce this message,” says Roberts. “They did generate comment from passengers when they were first installed but, are now a familiar sight for frequent flyers.

  “We have successfully reduced security queue times in summer 2012, and the virtual assistants have played a small but useful role in achieving this.”

 Virtual assistants do not come cheap – basic models cost $25,000, however, once purchased, or even leased, the virtual assistants cost little to run.

“The initial outlay was significant,” adds Roberts. “Particularly as we wanted to feature a model exclusive to Bristol Airport. However, running costs are minimal.

 “The existing virtual assistants continue to do a good job, but we have no plans to hire any more at this stage. However, there could be potential in future to use similar technology to promote brands and products in airport shops.”

They are becoming more advanced, week-by-week, with makers developing more interactivity to meet clients’ demands.

Virtual assistants, it seems, are here to stay. It cannot be long before we are seeing these intelligent, hard-working customer services representatives, in all sections of the airport.

Bienvenu believes that virtual assistants will become widespread during the next decade, adding that more intelligent, voice-recognition avatars – similar to Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple’s iPhone and iPad – are just around the corner.

“The technology is there,” he adds. “It is just a matter of budget. I think, within several years, you will see them just about everywhere.

“I believe that in approximately five to 10 years they will still be effective in wayfinding, security, and other airport related tasks; however, they will not have the degree of profound impact that they have today, since passengers will eventually become used to them. Nevertheless, they will still be effective.”

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